Take a trip through history on European railways
Trains: a fast, comfortable and climate-friendly way to get around Europe. But for researcher Anna Blennow, train travel is also a way of travelling back in time. In her suitcase, she carries guidebooks from the 19th century, and the hotels she stays at should preferably be over 100 years old.
An ‘occupational hazard’ says Anna Blennow with a smile – the fact that she never travels without the company of an old guidebook. She is a senior lecturer in Latin at the Department of Languages and Literatures, and a few years ago she led an international research project on – you guessed it – the history of the guidebook. When travel guides started being mass-produced at the end of the 19th century, it was a direct effect of the expansion of the rail network in Europe. And, to a large extent, that is the same rail network you travel on today.
“If you refer to an old guidebook while on a train, you will be surprised at how much of the cultural heritage it describes that remains. But insights also come flooding in about everything that happened during the 20th century. Such as when you travel through German cities destroyed during World War II. Then a gaping hole in this trip through history suddenly arises, a hole where nothing is left. And you experience this physically, at the place.”
Stopped flying completely
Anna Blennow first travelled by train to Italy in the 1990s. She stopped flying completely out of concerns for the climate a little over a decade now. Both for work as a researcher and for private trips, she travels by train in Europe. Over time, she has developed and refined what she calls history travel. In addition to carrying old guidebooks with her, this also includes accommodation at hotels that are over 100 years old.
“Unfortunately, the opulent buildings from the late 19th century and early 20th century housing older hotels are often very expensive and luxurious. So there are some costs involved. If I travel for work, I just take something simple and cheaper near the station.”
The oldest hotel she has stayed at is the Goldener Adler in Innsbruck. The city has long been an important stopover point for travelling through the Brenner Pass in the Alps, and the Goldener Adler was already operating as a hotel at the end of the 14th century. Down the centuries, guests such as Mozart, Heinrich Heine, Maria von Trapp and Sartre have all stayed there.
“If you are so inclined, you can learn so much when you travel by train. It is travelling through history in a kind of double sense, because the railways themselves are also part of this cultural heritage.”
“Gaining a workday”
Even though Anna Blennow likes to put in an extra stop or two on her journey so that she gets to see something new, she also finds travelling by train very convenient, even if you want to get around quickly.
“If you are travelling in Europe, it doesn’t take much longer by train if you include all the transfers that come with your flights. I see it as gaining a workday. Having to make your way around airports is never compatible with a quiet workday.”
Train to Latin course in Rome
Her next trip is to Rome, where in mid-June she will be teaching a course in Latin Epigraphy. This time, her journey will go via Copenhagen, Hamburg and Basel. Of the seven students attending the course, which is at second-cycle level, three have chosen to take the train there as well.
“One of them was already a train traveller, but two made the choice because I told them about train travel as an alternative. It’s great to be able to make a small difference to the environment, but also to induct new generations into history travel,” says Anna Blennow.
In the Italian capital, the group will look at ancient and medieval inscriptions in field studies and walks through the city.
“There is something special about place. You learn something when you go to a place that you could not have learned in any other way. It goes much deeper than just reading about it. That is why courses and travel are so important, and it’s so good to be able to do it by train.
Is there anything you plan to see or do on your train trip down to Rome?
“I have a two-hour stop in Hamburg before my next train departs. I will probably go to Hotel Atlantic during that time, which was a gathering point for travellers who were going to America in the early 20th century. They have a lobster soup on the menu that has been served here ever since then.”
- Bring some of your own food. “Basically, all trains have a restaurant car and there’s nothing better than eating lunch while travelling through the Alps. But having some food with you is always good if something unexpected occurs.”
- Pack light. “Your bag is with you all the way, and should be light enough for you to put it up in the luggage racks and take it down again.”
- Choose night train legs of your journey strategically. “I have trouble sleeping if the train lurches and sways too much. That means it’s a good idea to schedule night train legs through Germany for example, where there are more straight stretches than in alpine landscapes.”
- Brush up your language skills. “When travelling by train, you go in and out of different language areas. I usually try to chat a bit with the conductor or a fellow traveller.”